I was recently invited to be a part of an online community poetry project called Lament for the Dead. Poets were asked to agree to write a lament for either an officer or someone shot by an officer within 24 hours of receiving the assignment. When poets join, they don’t know if they will be lamenting the death of an officer or someone who is killed by police. The project goes all summer, and they anticipate that over 500 poets may be needed to write a lament, because that is likely to be the number of citizens and police officers who die this summer.
This project is very important. In my mind, how we are going to begin conversations and initiate real change is through dialogue and through recognizing the humanity of every individual, and lamenting things that are lost when people die. Every human being deserves grace and deserves to be heard, understood. Once people can see that the issue is one of humanity and retraining how we see each other, examining why we divide when we should bring together, looking at examples where the police and the citizens work well together and protect the peace and then examining what is different in localities like Baltimore and Ferguson, we will start to see real change. Those who say all police are the problem are just as at fault as those who say all criminals deserved what they got. We’re talking past each other. We’re not seeing that core of human sameness, in the badge or on the streets. I think by writing a lament for every life, we’re starting a conversation.
When I received my assignment yesterday morning, I couldn’t find anything out about my subject except a few news articles – he was 21. He swung a sword and was threatening passers by and hitting cars. He had stripped his clothes off. He had been at it for hours. He lived in Kansas City. I thought about him, and it just raised so many questions in my mind. I wished I could’ve spoken with him, and in my line of work, we often speak with people whose lives are radically different from anything we’ve ever known. The key to helping someone get ready for a career and lift themselves up out of homelessness is compassion and understanding. It is to listen with an open heart and an open mind, and to not judge them based on their mistakes in their past but rather on the strength that brought them through it to this day, and help them to use that strength to go forward. Strength is a commonality that everyone I’ve had as a client shares. Strength, uncertainty, fear. These things seemed to me like things Javon may have understood. I wondered what brought him to that moment. Given the description of the situation by people who witnessed him, I felt certain it was probably drugs. I felt like he may have been failed by the system, somehow – like maybe he had never had someone who wanted to truly sit with him, listen to him, and just help him find his strength and find what within him would help him move and shine.
So after thinking about him, I wrote a poem of questions – a lament of what little I knew of his life – and a hope that people would start trying to listen deeply. You can read that poem here.
His name was Javon Hawkins and he was twenty one. He will never see twenty two and that is a tragedy.